How the Lottery Feeds People’s Desire For Riches
Across the United States, people spent over $80 billion on lottery tickets in 2021. While lottery proponents claim it’s not gambling, the game is a form of betting that requires a wager of money or valuables for the chance to win something. The odds of winning the jackpot are incredibly slim. Most players don’t even make the top tenth of winners and those who do rarely end up with all of their winnings. Most of the money that’s won ends up being lost within a few years.
This is because people tend to covet money and the things that money can buy. This is why the Bible forbids coveting (Exodus 20:17, 1 Timothy 6:10). Lotteries are popular because they feed this desire for riches. The dream of winning the lottery makes many believe that if they can just hit the right numbers, all of their problems will disappear. This type of thinking is deceitful, and it’s not based in reality. Lottery winnings are not a cure for poverty, they are simply a form of speculative investing.
The origins of lotteries are ancient. The Old Testament includes several examples of the Lord giving away property by lot, and Roman emperors used it to distribute slaves during Saturnalian feasts. By the medieval period, lotteries had become popular among the Low Countries, where they raised funds to build town fortifications and help poor people.
But the modern incarnation of the lottery, as Cohen writes, began in the nineteen-sixties, when growing awareness about the huge profits to be made in the gambling industry collided with a crisis in state funding. At that time, advocates could sell the idea of a lottery by emphasizing its ability to float a specific line item—usually education but sometimes elder care or public parks or aid for veterans.
However, as the lottery’s popularity grew in the late twentieth century, those same advocates realized that they could no longer argue that the revenue it generated would float the entire budget. The resulting message, coded in lottery advertisements as “a tax on the stupid,” obscures the regressivity of this arrangement. As a result, lottery sales increase when incomes fall, unemployment rises, and poverty rates surge, while advertising dollars are disproportionately concentrated in neighborhoods with large numbers of poor, black, or Latino people.
Advocates of the lottery are now promoting it as a way to “save the children,” an argument that is less likely to rouse outrage than the more common one that says that taxes on sins such as tobacco or alcohol are regressive. Neither argument is a complete lie, but each has its downsides.